Boris Johnson’s “four nations” approach to tackling the coronavirus has been dealt a fresh blow after the government of Northern Ireland joined those of Scotland and Wales in rejecting the “stay alert” slogan, and announcing its own plans for easing the lockdown.

The prime minister sought to play down the differences in approaches on Monday, stressing in the Plan to Rebuild that people should “pull together as a United Kingdom”. But Edinburgh, Cardiff and now Belfast have chosen to develop their own plans.

The Stormont executive published a five-stage roadmap for exiting lockdown on Tuesday that revealed a slower, more cautious strategy than Downing Street’s plan for England. Ministers rejected Johnson’s “stay alert” slogan, which has been widely criticised as confusing, and also decided against setting projected dates for loosening restrictions.

The plan broadly aligned Northern Ireland with Scotland and Wales, which have also rejected Johnson’s new messaging.

“We will not be driven by a timetable and we know some will be disappointed by that, but our roadmap doesn’t answer every query, it provides people with an indication of how things might move in the weeks and months ahead,” said Arlene Foster, the first minister and Democratic Unionist party (DUP) leader.

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance. 

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play if everyone wears them.

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister and Sinn Féin deputy leader, asked the public for patience. “When we’re in position to slowly and carefully move out of the lockdown, we will keep you updated every step of the way,” she said.

The power-sharing executive last week extended Northern Ireland’s lockdown to 28 May and said it would avoid specifying dates for each of the five stages to have “sufficient flexibility” to modify the plan in line with scientific advice.

Matthew O’Toole, the SDLP member of the legislative assembly for Belfast South and a former Downing Street staffer, said: “No 10 as a machine just hasn’t been set up to think about dealing with devolution, in the way it probably should.”

He said the infection may have been brought under control more swiftly in Northern Ireland because the public took their lead from Dublin, which announced an earlier, more drastic lockdown than England. “If the Irish prime minister is saying: ‘We now need to lock down,’ people will take their cue from that.”

And he warned of the continued risk of “confused messages”, as England begins to unwind some of its restrictions.

Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary, Ian Murray, said: “We are starting to see England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pulling in different directions. While devolution naturally means governments can make different decisions, a lack of coordination and clear messaging from No 10 has led to this splintering.

“Not only should the UK government be working in conjunction with all nations, it should be engaging more closely with all regions, local authorities and elected mayors.”

The Scottish affairs committee in the House of Commons is announcing an enquiry into “the effectiveness of the four nations approach in tackling the pandemic”. Its chair, the SNP’s Pete Wishart, said: “As we consider leaving lockdown we will examine the increasing divergence in policy and messaging and consider what impact this will have on the Scottish public.”

Johnson conceded on Monday that the new guidance was inevitably more complex than the blunt “stay home, save lives” message of the past six weeks. But he suggested the public could be trusted to use their “common sense” in interpreting new guidelines about outdoor activities and returning to the workplace.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, expressed concerns about people feeling forced to return to work too soon, after Johnson said some workplaces could “actively encourage” staff to return from Wednesday, as long as they complied with new “Covid-secure” guidance.

Sturgeon said: “I know that the UK government published guidance for businesses yesterday. That guidance is not operational in Scotland at this stage, since we are not currently encouraging more people to go back to work.”

She added: “I am very grateful for the fact that the vast majority of employers have been so responsible throughout this crisis, so I am sure that most will do this, and will not urge employees back prematurely.”

Sturgeon has also echoed the message of the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, who has said police will patrol the border with England in order to “advise and explain” to potential holidaymakers that they should return home.

The new advice for England does not permit holiday trips but it does allow the public to travel as far as they want to exercise, fuelling fears that many will flock to beauty spots.

“I think we have got it right in Wales and I do not think they’ve got it right over the border,” Drakeford said on Monday. Sturgeon agreed, saying: “It is not OK to drive into Scotland to beauty spots to visit places and for leisure.”

The prime minister’s approach to communicating his strategy was fiercely criticised by the Tory backbencher Peter Bone on Tuesday, who said Johnson’s aides appeared to think they were running a “presidential government” and had watched too many episodes of the US political drama The West Wing.

He accused Johnson of breaking the ministerial code by announcing his plans in a televised address, more than 18 hours before the document was published or MPs were given the opportunity to question him.

“Spin and presentation don’t make good government: it is parliament that makes good government,” Bone told MPs.

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